The Orphan Scandal: Christian Missionaries and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood

The Orphan Scandal: Christian Missionaries and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood

by Beth Baron


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On a sweltering June morning in 1933 a fifteen-year-old Muslim orphan girl refused to rise in a show of respect for her elders at her Christian missionary school in Port Said. Her intransigence led to a beating—and to the end of most foreign missions in Egypt—and contributed to the rise of Islamist organizations.

Turkiyya Hasan left the Swedish Salaam Mission with scratches on her legs and a suitcase of evidence of missionary misdeeds. Her story hit a nerve among Egyptians, and news of the beating quickly spread through the country. Suspicion of missionary schools, hospitals, and homes increased, and a vehement anti-missionary movement swept the country. That missionaries had won few converts was immaterial to Egyptian observers: stories such as Turkiyya's showed that the threat to Muslims and Islam was real. This is a great story of unintended consequences: Christian missionaries came to Egypt to convert and provide social services for children. Their actions ultimately inspired the development of the Muslim Brotherhood and similar Islamist groups.

In The Orphan Scandal, Beth Baron provides a new lens through which to view the rise of Islamic groups in Egypt. This fresh perspective offers a starting point to uncover hidden links between Islamic activists and a broad cadre of Protestant evangelicals. Exploring the historical aims of the Christian missions and the early efforts of the Muslim Brotherhood, Baron shows how the Muslim Brotherhood and like-minded Islamist associations developed alongside and in reaction to the influx of missionaries. Patterning their organization and social welfare projects on the early success of the Christian missions, the Brotherhood launched their own efforts to "save" children and provide for the orphaned, abandoned, and poor. In battling for Egypt's children, Islamic activists created a network of social welfare institutions and a template for social action across the country—the effects of which, we now know, would only gain power and influence across the country in the decades to come.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804790765
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 07/09/2014
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Beth Baron is Professor of History at City College and Director of the Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center at The Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the author of Egypt as a Woman: Nationalism, Gender, and Politics (2005) and The Women's Awakening in Egypt: Culture, Society, and the Press (1994).

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The Orphan Scandal

Christian Missionaries and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood

By Beth Baron


Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9222-6



Caring for the Orphaned and Abandoned

CHRISTIAN MISSIONARIES AND ISLAMIC ACTIVISTS battled in the 1930s over the bodies and souls of Egyptian children on the field of social welfare. The tug of war was most pronounced in the efforts to "save" or "liberate" the orphaned and abandoned. The struggle, which shaped the Muslim Brotherhood, seeded the welfare state, and sealed the fate of missionaries in Egypt, was a long time in the making. Tracing its roots, and the reasons missionaries came to have a near monopoly on orphan care, is critical to understanding the confrontation that culminated in the 1933 Port Said orphan scandal.

Among those who were considered the deserving poor, orphaned and abandoned children stood out in Muslim societies, but there were very important differences in their legal status and place in the social imaginary. According to Islamic law, an orphan (yatim; pl. aytam, yatama) was one who had lost a father. Foundlings (laqit; pl. luqata'), or abandoned children, in contrast, were often presumed to be the result of illicit sexual relations, though children were also abandoned due to penury. Islamic inheritance law, which Copts followed, set the parameters for caring for these children, with the law clearly distinguishing between those whose paternity could be established and those whose paternity was unknown or contested: one was to be specially protected, the other ostracized for their unknown pedigree.

Islamic law has a great deal to say about the care of orphans, encouraging kind treatment, detailing the responsibilities of guardians, and protecting inheritances. The child's mother, if still alive, was not responsible for supporting the child financially; and she had no rights over the child's upbringing or claims to his or her property after the child had passed a certain age. Inheritance was set by fixed Qur'anic shares and could only be assigned to those in the blood line. By regulating and assigning guardians, usually a male family member, the law sought to protect the inheritance of orphans. The law prohibited adoption, barring admission into a family to those outside the male bloodline, and did not allow the giving of a new paternal name to a child. These rules effectively excluded orphans from becoming legally knit into a new family on the same terms as other offspring. Fostering and giving the gift of care, in which children without parental care were taken into other families but kept their own names, existed. Hidden or secret adoption was also practiced, but these unsanctioned arrangements ran the risk of becoming undone at critical moments.

The regulations surrounding orphans shored up the notion of the family as a set of blood relatives with a shared pedigree and patrilineal descent. The social and legal emphasis on biological as opposed to adoptive parenthood created challenges for those who were infertile and could not reproduce. And it left those without a patrimony—abandoned children—in a social wilderness. Bearing the stigma of the act of illicit sex and carrying the stain of a misbegotten birth, they were sometimes perceived to have "tainted" blood. Whether the sexual act through which they were conceived was voluntary or forced, their mothers were considered to have dishonored the family by having premarital or extra-marital relations. Stigmatizing children born out of wedlock and branding the mothers was obviously not unique to Egypt, but it meant that single motherhood was not an option, and it left illegitimate children on the margins of society. They were not legally orphans, which would have given them certain protections.

In practice the "orphans" in the story presented here came from a variety of family situations and did not adhere to a strict legal definition: they were abandoned, disabled, motherless, fatherless, or simply had no relatives who were able or willing to care for them. They were, in short, children without parental care. The Ottoman-Egyptian state strove to build up a social welfare network that would help orphans who lacked resources or family members willing to raise them; abandoned children, who had no knowledge of their families at all; and all others who fell through the cracks of family networks. Its work was interrupted by the British occupation of 1882, after which state investment in social welfare declined. Here is where missionaries found a special calling and a niche. Protestant missionaries had begun arriving on the shores of Egypt in the mid-nineteenth century with the gospel in hand and a vision to save Egyptians. When the locals did not turn out in large numbers to hear their message, evangelicals started building schools, hospitals, and later orphanages to guarantee a captive audience. Partaking of social welfare came with an obligation to study the Bible, sit in on services, and listen to prayer. Egyptians initially took this to be a small price to pay for services which were in short supply.

"Managing" the Poor: The Ottoman-Egyptian State

Social welfare in premodern Egypt had been a prerogative, or responsibility, of religious authorities, with each religious community taking care of its own poor and establishing trusts for this purpose. The modernizing state under the Ottoman viceroy Mehmed 'Ali (r. 1805–49) eyed the assets of Islamic religious endowments and began assuming administration of them. The state gained oversight over institutions set up to serve those who were not sufficiently provided for by the safety net of the family or by other forms of religious charity. The latter included large multifunctional complexes established by sultans and other wealthy donors, which had previously operated autonomously from the state. The Maristan Qalawun, a medieval mosque and hospital complex, was one such institution. It came to have an orphanage and foundling home, which took in abandoned children found on the streets of Cairo and those whose parents could not properly care for them.

The Ottoman-Egyptian state was interested in "managing" the poor, whether those in need were widows, sick, elderly, or orphans. In addition to taking over administration of religious endowments, the state started its own social welfare operations. Prominent among these was the Madrasat al-Wilada (School for Midwives). Established in the 1830s in the Civilian Hospital of Azbakiyya, the school contained a home for foundlings and orphans, becoming the first rudimentary state-founded orphanage. The refuge served as a recruiting ground for students for the midwifery school, which initially had a difficult time filling its rosters.

There was obvious demand for a home for abandoned and orphaned children, as borne out by police records, which for the eight-year period 1846–54 reveal an "extensive discussion" of abandoned infants and their admission to the Madrasat al-Wilada. Parents, neighbors, and others brought infants they could not nurse or care for to the police for placement in the new home, with numbers of foundlings entering the home ranging from one to three per month. The state turned to wet nurses, who in the days before the use of baby bottles were essential in supplying infants with sustenance.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the abandonment of infants seemed to occur most frequently near religious institutions, or at least that was where they were most often reported to be found. One infant boy brought to the police station in November 1846 by an unnamed peasant woman was discovered at a mosque in al-Jamaliyya, a neighborhood in Cairo. The British Arabic scholar Edward Lane noted that when a mother died leaving an infant, and the father and other relatives could not hire a nurse, the infant was sometimes left at the door of a mosque, usually during Friday prayers. Newborns may also have been left directly at the door of a wet nurse, who would then receive a subsidy to breastfeed the infant until it could be weaned and placed in an institution.

The poor pursued distinct strategies for obtaining relief, seeking aid when necessary from the state. Orphans were among those who petitioned for entry into Takiyyat Tulun, a mosque which was transformed into a poor shelter in 1847–48 and successfully operated in this capacity for over thirty years. Children sought admission when a parent passed away: when the father of a girl named Khadra died, she asked to be admitted into the refuge, for she had no one to take care of her. Mothers, whether they were divorced, separated, widowed, or army wives, petitioned for admission into the shelter with young children when they had no means of support.

The Ottoman-Egyptian state may have unwittingly sponsored a home for unwed mothers at the refuge. In one year alone, forty-nine babies were born in Takiyyat Tulun to women who seemed to use the refuge "for the sole purpose of having a safe place to give birth." Many of these women stayed afterward for months nursing their newborns; others used it only as temporary refuge when they were ready to deliver. These women may have come to the refuge in the mosque complex to give birth away from the watchful eyes of villagers or urban neighbors.

The Ottoman-Egyptian state increasingly took the role of guardian, investing itself with greater responsibility for the protection of its most vulnerable subjects. This paralleled moves by the Ottoman state in Istanbul, which from the 1850s set up an authority to administer a central fund for orphans—the Supervision of Orphan Properties—as part of a series of reforms to strengthen state control over the courts and the judges who presided over them. The authority managed the property and money that orphans would inherit at majority. Going even further than the Ottoman reform in secularizing the law pertaining to orphans, Khedive Isma'il (r. 1863–79) established the majlis hasbi (a probate or guardianship court) in 1873 to protect the well-being of minors. For the first time, the new regulations fixed the age of majority (which under Islamic law had been fluid depending upon the individual youth) at eighteen. He also established the Ministry of Religious Endowments, claiming the mantle of the guardianship of the weak and vulnerable to legitimize his rule.

The Ottoman-Egyptian state recognized the limits of religious endowments and state resources in meeting the demand for social welfare services. Hoping to expand the range of educational, medical, and social services available to the population, the state tentatively welcomed missionaries, who were provided with access to land and other benefits. Missionaries appealed as providers, for their projects seemed to match those of a modernizing state that sought to teach minds and discipline bodies.

In the field of orphan care, French Catholic orders sponsored the first foreign orphanages in Egypt. When priests found two infants (most likely twins) abandoned on the doorsteps of their church in Alexandria in 1850, they handed them over to the sisters, who commenced their work with foundlings. Shortly thereafter, the Dames de la Charité started a home for the orphaned and abandoned. Expanding their efforts in response to regional crises, they took in forty orphaned refugee girls from the Levant in 1860 and that same year started the Orphanage of Saint Vincent de Paul for boys. Subsequently, the sisters began a separate home for foundlings, christening it the Refuge of Saint Joseph. French Catholic orders also established orphanages in Cairo, among them the Maison du Bon-Pasteur and the Maison des Soeurs Franciscaines. At the end of the century, the latter housed fifty-four orphaned children and supervised the care of thirty babies, the smallest of whom were with wet nurses in Bulaq under the watch of a sister. Catholic orders set up orphanages in other cities, too. In Port Said, the complex of social welfare institutions of the community of Bon-Pasteur d'Angers included an orphanage. In the 1890s, it housed sixty-four abandoned or orphaned girls, who in the morning studied and in the afternoon produced handiwork to support the institution.

Privatizing: British Policy, Colonial Wives, and Orphan Care

After the British occupation of 1882, colonial officials took control of the Ottoman-Egyptian state, running it as a "veiled protectorate," with shadow advisors in each ministry overseeing affairs. Sir Evelyn Baring, Earl of Cromer, Britain's agent and consul general in Egypt from 1883 to 1907, was the de facto ruler. Concerned with shoring up Egypt's European debt, Lord Cromer reined in state forays into social welfare, funding education and health care minimally. Dismantling state welfare institutions or starving them of funds, the British looked to religious foundations and privately funded secular enterprises to provide solutions to social problems.

Under colonial rule, the British controlled some ministries (interior) more tightly than others (endowments) and sought to gain greater control over the Ministry of Religious Endowments in particular. The new khedive, Tawfiq (r. 1879–92), who replaced his father, Isma'il, countered by eliminating that ministry in 1884 and creating in its stead a General Administration of Endowments, which was directly responsible to him. British officials claimed that they sought to reign in khedivial corruption in administering the religious endowments and had the ministry reinstated under Tawfiq's son, 'Abbas Hilmi II (r. 1892–1914), who nevertheless retained a good deal of control over it.

The Ministry of Religious Endowments oversaw the running of an array of mosques, hospitals, schools, and shelters, such as Takiyyat 'Abdin, a hospice started in 1904 that cared for twenty-five to thirty indigent single women. It also administered the Cairo Orphanage for Boys and Girls at Bab al-Luq, which in 1918 housed ninety-six boys and thirty-five girls. According to a government report, children were accepted into the orphanage "when it is established that their families are unable to provide for their bringing up." The children received an elementary education, including instruction in reading, writing, math, health, and Islam. The boys and girls were then prepared for different professions: boys were taught industrial crafts and trained as shoemakers, blacksmiths, or tailors, and girls were taught domestic skills and trained in cooking, ironing, and sewing. Workshops connected to the orphanage supplied clothes and similar items to establishments run by the Ministry of Religious Endowments.

Officials encouraged colonial wives, foreign missionaries, and local social reformers to launch private social welfare operations. To facilitate this, they handed out state subsidies in the form of exemptions from customs duties, train passes, and the like. In one 1885 venture, British abolitionists launched the Cairo Home for Freed Slaves, a refuge for liberated African and Circassian female slaves. Run by a British matron, the home aimed to prepare those who sought shelter there for lives in domestic service. Cromer turned to Protestant missionaries for help in caring for those placed in the home who were too young to stay, since it was designed for temporary refuge. American Presbyterians took in twelve African girls, raising them in the Azbakiyya Boarding School.

British colonial officials in Egypt crafted certain social welfare policies and then turned to their wives, compatriots, and Protestant friends to provide services. In this way, friends of the late Lady Cromer established a refuge for foundlings, the Lady Cromer Home (or Foundling Hospital) in a wing of Qasr al-'Ayni Hospital in 1898. The numbers of those taken in rose quickly: in 1902 the hospital admitted 85 infants; two years later, it admitted 131. Cromer took a special interest in the institution, noting in the annual report for 1904 that the mortality among children admitted to it was very high, and he ascribed their deaths "to the terrible condition in which the majority are brought to the hospital. The mothers abandon them, immediately after birth, on some piece of waste ground or in some deserted building, and they are seldom found until after they have been exposed, in a state of nudity, to the weather for several hours." Cromer blamed Egyptian mothers for abandoning their newborns, showing little understanding for their plight, fear, or desperation, and ignoring social, and particularly paternal, responsibility for the situation of the mother and child.


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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xv

Cast of Characters xviii

Prologue: The Turkiyya Hasan Affair 1

Part I The Best of Intentions: Evangelicals on the Nile

1 Forgotten Children: Caring for the Orphaned and Abandoned 25

2 Winning Souls for Christ: American Presbyterians in Cairo 42

3 Speaking in Tongues: Pentecostal Revival in Asyut 60

4 Nothing Less Than a Miracle: The Swedish Salaam Mission of Port Said 78

Part II Unintended Consequences: Islamists and the State

5 Fight Them with Their Own Weapons: The Origins of the Muslim Brotherhood 117

6 Combating Conversion: The Expansion of the Anti-Missionary Movement 135

7 Crackdown: Suppressing the League for the Defense of Islam 151

8 The Battle for Egypt's Orphans: Toward a Muslim Welfare State 167

Epilogue 189

Notes 205

Index 241

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